Thursday, May 10, 2007

Spider-man 3: The good, the bad, the very ugly

What more is there to say about Spider-man 3? I've avoided reading anything, so - for me, at least - there's still a lot to say. I'll be brief, but I feel required to include something quotable: it's a C-script with an A-budget. And while there are scenes that I could watch again and again - nearly anything with Sandman effects, but especially his first attempts to reconstitute himself, which is stunning not for its technical proficiency so much as its tenderness and subtlety - there are at least as many that I could do without ever seeing again.

First, the good. Eddie Brock is a great foil, keeping the masks off so the characters could emote even when it didn't seem necessary was a great idea, Willem Defoe's appearance is perfect, and the fight where Peter loses the ring makes for some great drama.

And now the bad. There are two main problems with this film. The first is one of genre: Spider-man's story should be a comedy, or at least a tragicomedy, but Raimi gives us a tragedy. While a lot of the structures of the classical or Shakespearean comedy and tragedy that I'm thinking of when I use these terms are superficially similar - the flawed hero, the struggle against the world, the difficulty with family, the fight for a seemingly impossible love - their tone, vocabulary, and aims differ mightily. The tragedy moves inexorably toward doom, though at the end it offers some cathartic consolation that hints at a fresh start. In a seemingly opposite movement, the comedy tends to be light-hearted and fun, as it's oriented toward the certain resolution of impossible circumstances in the service of love. (Well, it's hardly that simply, but that's hardly relevant.)

If you've seen the film, you know which sort of film Spider-man 3 provides us: Peter Parker is the flawed hero who supplies the personification of hubris, an over-confidence that we know is headed somewhere awful bad. The first two films also portrayed Spider-man as a tragic figure - which, now that I recognize it, perhaps explains why I never liked them as much as it seemed I was supposed to - but Raimi's love of Spider-man has turned into a masochistic obsession with his Spider-pain in this third installment. A simple rule of film - tragic or not - is that things will quickly turn bad if they start out too good: the better they start, the badder they get. Peter and Mary Jane have far too much going for them and, knowing that this is a Venom film, there's little doubt that we're in for a mighty bad fall. Where's the levity? Where's the heart that makes Spider-man so endearing? (A comedy, I might add, would likely employ more or less the reverse plot - they'd start out in trouble and end happy.)

Harry's death is our cathartic moment, I suppose, but it offers little of the consolation that it should. Why not? For the second of my two main problems. See, Spider-man 3 isn't even a particularly good tragedy. A tragedy works because the hero is sympathetic and/or likeable, even if he's a fiend too - think Othello or Charles Foster Kane. Peter Parker is simply a self-obsessed jerk, and Mary Jane and Harry are hardly any better. Peter hunts down the Sandman not because he's an escaped criminal but because he killed Ben Parker (An aside: Say what? Why was that necessary?); Mary Jane breaks up with Peter to run away from her own insecurities as much as she does to save him from Harry; and Harry saves Peter and Mary Jane not because he realizes that he cares about them despite how they've treated him, but because the butler told him they had nothing to do with his father's death. It's hard to like characters whose heroism is steeped in such self-absorption and selfishness. How many movies will we have to sit through before Aunt May finally gets it into Peter's head that Ben Parker wouldn't have wanted him to be irresponsible/isolated/vengeful/so dense?

The humor that we do get is effective when the tone is lighter but becomes more pained and painful as the film progresses. Bruce Campbell is hilarious as the maitre d', but the later jazz club scene is as bizarre and discomforting for the audience as it is for Mary Jane and Gwen. When Peter and Mary Jane share a brief moment at the film's end, I wonder why they even bother. Not just because they're both unwilling to put their care for the other's well-being on par with their own - much less ahead of their own, as Aunt May demands - and not just because Mary Jane's jealous of Spider-man's fame. And not because Peter was an incredible jerk and hit Mary Jane while he was under the thrall of the symbiote. (Another aside: What a cop-out! "It wasn't me, it was the alien suit that fell out of the sky!") Actually, it's all those reasons and more. They just don't seem to work as a couple. And they just don't seem to be terribly nice people. Catharsis should offer some small hope that things will get better, but I don't see why they - or we - could ever be under that impression.


James said...

The Peter-hits-MJ bit was one of two really dreadful movie cliches in Spider-Man 3. (The other being the "I'm not going to answer the phone, but I'll change my mind during the course of the message you leave, only to pick up the receiver too late" bit.)

It's not just a cop-out because of the symbiote (which in itself might not be a cop-out; it's a strong metaphor after all), but because it's the horrendously over-used "turn around too quickly in a struggle, sort-of-accidentally hit you, but it's definitely bad because she's sprawled on the floor and the crowd is hushed" thing.

Anyway, great analysis, and great blog!

neilshyminsky said...

What I don't understand is why the symbiote was a necessary metaphor in the first place - Peter was well on his way to becoming a self-absorbed jerk before he put on the alien suit.

My theory is that the suit provides him with plausible deniability, and the filmmakers couldn't make Peter a batterer (even if accidental) without an escape hatch. The logic is as follows: he never hit her before he wore the suit, so why should we think that it was his fault?

But that same plausible deniability also weakens the emotional impact and resonance of his fall. The failings he displayed before donning the suit are made to seem trifling in relation to the Venom-inspired stuff. Peter's flaw is that he liked how the suit made him bad, not that he himself was capable of that same badness. I can't imagine any greater cop-out. :/

neilshyminsky said...

Oh, and I'd add the amnesia to your list of really awful clich├ęs, too. Sure, it's from the comics, but it's used so painfully instrumentally here that this excuse just doesn't fly.